On Tuesday the 11th of July, 1905 at a quarter to eleven in the morning an explosion occurred in the nine-foot seam of the National Colliery at Wattstown in the Rhondda Fach in South Wales, UK. Some 119 men and boys perished, 33 of whom were under the age of fifteen.
The street I grew up in was decimated. The house – the very bedroom I slept in as a child – was emptied, but their death is not entirely forgotten. Was it their knock I heard as a child?
This poem is dedicated to their memory.
I hear the knock on the window and the loudly whispered
Voice, ”Tom, you up yet?” and then the rush as Tom
Gets out of bed, pulls on his work clothes and
Runs down the stairs to where a sandwich waits for him.
Have you ever wondered what lives beyond us?
In a house, what memories linger in the walls,
What remains when the inhabitants, have left or died,
And do their voices linger on down the years?
It is forty-three years since Thomas Jones slept,
in the bedroom where my mother suckled me,
Yet sometimes, around dawn, when the house Is quiet,
I hear him still, leaving for his last day at work.
Thomas Jones, sixteen-year-old collier is how the coroner’s
Report described him, a boy doing a man’s job and perhaps
Earning a man’s wage to help his family, they who lived here
Before mine, to make ends meet, put food on the table.
Did the tap on the window come from Bill Hunt, who lived
Next door in number forty-four? Or perhaps from Thomas
Davies at number fifty, walking with his own seventeen
Year old son on their way down to the colliery?
Sometimes too I hear the steps and the low conversation
of the others, twenty men and boys from my little street, as they pass by,
Marching, marching on their way down to the colliery,
To join their comrades who together would form the day shift.
As they passed through the colliery gates they would have seen,
The familiar turning of the giant wheels of the winding gear, spinning
Their shiny steel thread, day and night, hauling their steel cages up
And down, men and coal, travelling the shaft’s five hundred feet.
As I used to see my own father, black-faced, red-eyed, weary
Emerge from his shift, so they would have passed the night shift,
Emerging squinting into the rising dawn, weary, tired, wanting only
To rush home for bath and bed before the next twelve hours of toil.
And so the day shift descended,
Down the five hundred foot shaft and
Then made the walk in the dust-filled gloom
To begin their work in the nine-foot seam.
At eleven forty-five on that July day,
They all died, bar three, two of whom
Would succumb later. Some were blown to pieces,
And they that survived the explosion, suffocated.
When I lie in my bed, listening, recalling,
I never hear the sound of the returning day shift,
Only the voices and footsteps of one hundred
And seventeen men and boys going to their death.